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Prove It: What Makes You Trust a Website?

Prove it campaign by LorelleWhat makes you trust this site? What makes you trust me? What makes you trust any website you visit? What is it about the site that earns your trust?

I’ve asked this question at most of the conferences and keynotes I’ve given over the past seven years: What makes you not trust a website? The answers are all over the map but usually boil down to these:

  • Too many ads or advertising in general.
  • Little or no original content.
  • Too much design and too little content.
  • No clear indication about the purpose of the site.
  • Comments are closed.
  • Hard to read.
  • Looks spammy.
  • You just know.

It’s the last one that intrigues me the most. People just know when they are being fooled. They instinctively know without many clues whether or not they can trust that person, business, or site.

Yet, they ignore that instinctive message time and time again. As P.T. Barnum is often credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It’s a great statement on how easy it is to not trust ourselves when it comes to trust.

As part of my year-long campaign called “Prove it,” I wanted to know what other experts are saying about how to building trust on the web. I wanted to understand better what makes people trust our websites and what we have to say on them.

There are a variety of studies that report you have less than a second to make a good first impression on your site and avoid what DIYThemes calls “Back Button Syndrome,” where people move fast away from your site within seconds of landing on it.

People move through the web FAST. And when they stumble on a site that they feel is “shady,” they slam their back button. (Some people won’t even stick around to discover your “reason why.” They won’t even give your blog a fair shot). Hence the name “back button syndrome.”

The problem is that there are some sites that lose visitors by mistake… These sites aren’t shady… they’re just presenting themselves the wrong way.

And that’s where these trust triggers come into play.

Trust triggers are design elements that help people know immediately that this is a site to be trusted. DIYThemes’ article describes them as a logo that conveys a clear, professional message, comments (or a comment counter) as an indicator that others trust the site enough to interact with it, and scorecards like subscriber, follower, and reader numbers.

Is it that easy to define trust triggers?

Trust Triggers: What Makes You Trust

In “Trustworthiness of Web Sites (2006)” by Audience/Dialogue, Dennis List explains trust on the web this way:

Trust is one of those concepts that seem obvious, but is difficult to explain in detail. Perhaps that’s because the word has a wide range of interpretations, with different people attributing different meanings to “trust”. Because this page is not about abstract philosophy, but focused on website effectiveness, I propose a working definition: that trust in any object can be measured by the willingness of visitors to interact with it in some way. When the object is a web page, that means not just looking at the page, but believing the information presented, or acting on it. (Also note that “willingness to interact” is not quite the same thing as interacting: interaction can occur without much trust, when the alternatives are worse.)

You can think of trust as one form of what are sometimes called “market based assets” – a value that a business (or other organization) has – based not on what it owns, but on what others think of it. In that context, trust goes with awareness level, word of mouth, reputation, image, referrals, and track record. All of these are fairly loose concepts, but they are all related. To that extent, when trust increases, so do those other concepts. It’s plausible (though untested, as far as I know) that increasing trust will also increase awareness – and vice versa.

In 1999, web pioneer, Jakob Nielsen wrote about trustworthiness in web design describing it this way:

The key finding is that trust is a long-term proposition that builds slowly as people use a site, get good results, and don’t feel let down or cheated. In other words, true trust comes from a company’s actual behavior towards customers experienced over an extended set of encounters. It’s hard to build and easy to lose: a single violation of trust can destroy years of slowly accumulated credibility.

He listed design quality, disclosures and transparency, content accuracy, and third-party links, recommendations, and testimonials as key to building trust.

I pause and consider Netflix which had two major bloopers this year which resulted in thousands of individuals losing faith and truth, closing their accounts and spreading negative rants about the company, many of them well-deserved. Their stock dove for cover as investors fled as social media took charge of their public image. Only a few months later, Netflix’s stock is high again and it appears to be business as usual. Big business can survive the court of social web opinion, but it can be a painful and costly path back to trust.

A guest post by Larry Kunz, a computer technology consultant, on I’d Rather Be Writing took on building trust in a corporate blog, a challenge many find an oxymoron. He describes the process of building corporate trust as putting a human face on the company.

Reveal yourself as a person. On a corporate blog it’s essential to show that the corporation is made up of people who have likes, dislikes, opinions, and feelings. Details about yourself—what you like to do, what inspires you, what makes you smile—provide contact points where readers can connect with you. My readers know that I like baseball and that as a kid I was fascinated by space flight. You can reveal a lot without ever crossing the line into subjects that might offend (the proverbial religion and politics) and without endangering your privacy (for example, names of family members).

Do you trust a company more because you feel like you know the people behind it personally? For many, it depends upon the size of the company. It’s easy to trust a company with less than 10 employees. You know you could meet and shake the hand of each of them. That’s familiar. Reach the 500 to 1000 mark for employees and “personal” isn’t usually your first thought. However, with the right tutoring and guide behind a corporate blog by the company president or a representative, the power to influence judgement and keep a human face on the company is very possible, proven time and time again. We didn’t refer to Microsoft as just Microsoft. We called it “Bill Gate’s company.” Same for Apple and the fear for the company after Steve Jobs’ death. A leader of the company can sometimes become more of a celebrity than the company itself.

PIXSYM Blog showcases five top credibility signals including reducing advertising to a minimum, update content regularly, make it easy to use, a clear and specific about page, and verify your claims.

In the section on transparency and having a good about page, I like how they described a key feature in getting people to trust you and your site:

People also want to know who is behind the scenes; Don’t leave it to their imagination because they won’t stick around long enough to figure it out. Create an “about us” page with real people (not stock photos) or a staff listing page and infuse it with your company’s vibe and personality. Also, be sure to make it easy to contact the people on these pages, as this will put visitors at ease and tell them “we’re available”.

Copywriter Susan Greene makes a strong point for creating trust through content, using words to convey messages.

From the second a visitor lands on your website, he’s thinking, “What’s in it for me?” Make sure your copy answers that question. Don’t ramble on about how great you are. Tell the customer what you can do for them. Use the word “you” instead of “we” or “I” as much as possible.

Ideally, your website should tell visitors what you’ve got, what it will do for them, and what they need to do next.

SEOmoz founder Rand Fishkin recently wrote about proving trust on the web with a step by step chart comparing trustworthy and untrustworthy characteristics. He and his company focus on SEO and he describes creating trust through SEO like this:

SEO at its core is about great content combined with earning great references. Sharing openly, honestly and adding value with that content is far more likely to produce returns in the form of links, reputation, references and customers than staying closed and secretive. Participation in a professional ecosystem almost always yields more value than hoarding “secret discoveries,” particularly when those same secrets are being shared elsewhere on a gigantic, relatively level playing field (the web).

My friend, Chris Garrett has a unique perspective on trust. In “How to Grow Your Google Authority,” he looks at blogging authority as a way of building trust.

Authority in general means that people trust you to supply expert insight. The good news is that authorities trusted by human beings are also trusted by Google…Authority in a search context takes into account all the elements of a site then determines a grading on the spectrum from completely authoritative through to no authority at all. The more authoritative and trusted your site, the better you will rank.

His recommendation on creating a site worth trusting? Focus on natural, organic growth, develop a body of work that is valuable and unique and tailored towards people not search engines, and develop a site design build around human-centered design and usability.

In “11 Reasons Customers Don’t Trust Your Web Site,: Small Biz Trends lists some specific hints:

  • It’s written like a brochure.
  • It’s littered with typos.
  • Lacks clear differentiation from others.
  • Uses the royal “we” too much.
  • Not updated.
  • Hard to navigate.
  • Uses too much jargon.
  • Looks like a template.
  • No About Page.
  • No physical address or easy to find contact information.
  • No third-party endorsements or testimonials.

In 2007, Webcredible released the results of a poll on what makes you trust a website when buying online. The top votes went for https in the web address (implied security), dealing with a reputable, known brand, a professional design look and feel, and contact information readily available.

WebGeekly describes building trust on landing pages from a visual perspective, recommending a clean and professional website design, putting trust logos and symbols near the top of the page as visual clues, and showcasing testimonials and recommendations, long-standing traditional techniques used by many companies.

One of the earliest “how to succeed in blogging” claims was to specialize. The more specific your blog topic and the more you portray yourself as an expert, the more likely the site is to succeed, attract attention, build traffic, make money, and bring people back for more. In 2010, a study by Penn State finally proved that specialization lead to online trust.

Research from Penn State indicates that specialization trumps generalization when it comes to the trustworthiness of online technology…

An experiment involving 124 randomly assigned undergraduate students who were told to buy wine using websites revealed that they trusted sites, recommendation-providing software and even computers labeled to perform specific functions more than the same tools with general designations.

…The researchers also found that users spent less time making a decision when there was a contrast between the source layers, which was an unexpected outcome. They thought multiple layers of specialization would speed up decision-making time. But in this case the quickest decisions were made by participants who used a specialized website on a general computer.

The fascinating study found that heuristics or “mental shortcuts” were part of the explanation.

“Basically, cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts that we use to make judgments that lead to decisions,” Sundar says. “For example, we see a long essay, we immediately think that it is a strong essay. This is the ‘length equals strength’ heuristic. Similarly, we tend to quickly believe statements made by experts or specialists because we apply the ‘expertise heuristic,’ which says that experts’ statements can be trusted.”

Tiny and Mighty asked if you would trust your own site, listing signs of an untrustworthy site as a checklist. The list featured spelling and grammar errors, poor design, lack of content, and lack of contact information.

They also shared a slideshow by B.J. Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University researching the process of identifying what makes a website credible.

The slideshow emphasizes trust going hand in hand with expertise and perceived credibility. According to his research:

People quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like IBM. The visual design should match the site’s purpose.

He uncovered an interesting characteristic for trust and credibility called “company motive.” Within a second of arriving on a site, people made decisions on the motive of the company and judged the site along with a dozen other criteria.

Fogg developed a way to assess the credibility of a site, how the prominence of information (design and content) mixed with the visitor’s interpretation of the value or meaning of the information equals the impact of credibility. This has become “Fogg’s Maxim for Credible Design:”

To increase the credibility impact of a website, find what elements your target audience interprets most favorably and make those elements most prominent.

The perceived credibility factors help visitors decide whether or not to trust, share, buy, or link to your site. Google and other search engines now take this into account in their page ranking algorithm often referred to as part of TrustRank.

Another study by Southhampton University looked at why people trust one company website or another. They found that the most important reasons for choosing one site over another came from easy to find information, easy to read descriptions, and coherent and simple layout, navigation, and design.

For a site to be trusted it has to convey the idea that there is a team of real, locally based people who have taken the trouble to make it easy for you to do business with them and who are there on the end of a phone to sort problems out once they’ve happened.

Anything clever or that gets in the way of this is at best not relevant and at worst actually gives a contrary impression. That’s not to say that people don’t appreciate elegant use of technology – they just don’t want it pushed into their faces.

What was surprising in light of today’s fascination with all things multimedia and social media was the least important criteria for trusting a website: the size of the company, use of videos, and a sense of community. So many websites and blogs put a lot of work into promoting their staff and making videos to show off their wares or promote them. And many work hard on creating a social environment to open dialog. All are important elements for building trust, but it was surprising how low these were on the totem pole of trust triggers in their research.

In “Building User Trust” by nGen Works, author Carl Smith describes familiarity as the key to build trust:

Keep in mind that everything about the website you build is a promise, from the layout to the content to the font. You’re telling users what to expect every step of the way, and that’s why consistency is so important. As human beings, we pick up on seemingly insignificant changes and then wonder what’s different. Consider how you feel when you discover a note on your windscreen. It’s unexpected, even unsettling, and it makes you pause for a moment. It’s the same online. If a message you’re not expecting pops up, it throws you out of rhythm. Even worse is when a confirmation message that you expect doesn’t appear, leaving you thinking, “I guess it worked”. Think about it: what that email confirmation we all wait on really confirms is our trust — what we expected to happen actually did.

One of the most overlooked aspects of trust on the web is that it’s transactional. If users choose to make themselves vulnerable by entering their information to try your application, they have to believe it’s going to be worth it. Many of us hesitate when we see credit card information being requested for a ‘free’ trial. As much as we knock Apple’s App Store, we trust it. Most apps are cheap and friends tell us which to get. It’s easier to trust something when the downside is minimal.

Keeping a user’s trust is no less important than earning it. Once users have decided to give you a chance, treat them with respect and communicate with them in meaningful ways. Some of the most successful websites use a conversational tone that’s almost like reading an email. Why? Because at the core of ongoing trust is a relationship. If you want a relationship to work, you have to maintain communication. Don’t just talk to talk or to announce random features; make sure there’s meaning for your user. And listen, too, because people quickly turn to Twitter or Facebook to bash companies they feel have abandoned them.

We Trust Sites With Answers

When I ask how you know you can trust a site, the answers come down to these:

  • It looks like it has the answers I need.
  • It looks like a comfortable place for me to visit.

In other words, it looks familiar and I can tell in an instant that this place has the answers. It might not be on this page, but somewhere in here are the answers I need.

Not surprisingly, Google even has a go at describing a “high quality site” that inspires trust:

Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals…Search is a complicated and evolving art and science, so rather than focusing on specific algorithmic tweaks, we encourage you to focus on delivering the best possible experience for users. Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content.

The recent changes in the Google ranking algorithm called “Panda” analyzes content for quality by asking the following types of questions in its calculations:

  • Is the information in the content trustworthy?
  • Is it written by an expert or qualified enthusiast?
  • Does the site have similar or related content on the subject?
  • Does the article have spelling, grammar, or factual errors?
  • Is the article written with humans or search engines in mind?
  • Is the content original?
  • Does the content fairly represent the point and the facts?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on the topic?
  • Is the content updated regularly?
  • Is the article edited well or appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • Is the article complete and comprehensive?
  • Is this an article worth bookmarking, sharing, or recommending?
  • Are there more ads than content or do ads interfere with the readability of the content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, book, or encyclopedia?
  • Does the article offer citations and links to external sources?
  • Would visitors complain if they saw the content?

All good questions. How Google’s algorithm determines all these is a great mystery in engineering and programming. Does your content and site pass their sniff test?

Here are some tips I recommend for improving the credibility of your site and building trust.

  • Make it easy to know you and your blog through your About Page.
  • Make it easy to verify the accuracy of any and all claims by citing sources and linking to them.
  • Make it easy to contact you.
  • Make it easy to navigate and find things.
  • Build your site around your content not around the design.
  • Choose advertising methods and placement carefully and purposefully.
  • Update your content regularly or hide dates.
  • Keep all visuals (photographs, graphics, and video) clean and professional, not template or stock photography.
  • Make testimonials and trackbacks easy to see and find.
  • Watch spelling, grammar, and typos no matter how insignificant they may seem.
  • Keep comments clean from spam and time-wasting comments.
  • Make the site look like it has the answers someone is seeking.

Prove It! Campaign Article Series

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen.


  1. Matthew
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    My first instinct was to explain why I like a website. But I realize it’s not how attractive I find the site. It’s about the content. There are many sites I trust that are downright ugly. But I like the content.
    Things that make me trust a site:
    * The content is reviewed for obvious typos.
    * The articles are posted by individuals willing to take personal responsibility for the post.
    * When commenting is allowed the administrator allows unfavorable(but not abusive) posts.
    * The person posting articles acknowledges readers and thanks them for correcting mistakes in the posts.
    * I don’t mind advertising that is relevant to the content and tastefully displayed(no flashing banner ads)

    • Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      I like the tip you offer on taking personal responsibility for the post and its content, including fixing things. Excellent point.

  2. Brad
    Posted February 8, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Ads for me. Usually the sites a billboard. I’ll then check a few pages. Check there web of trust rating, and just how the content is. Most sites unsurprising fail.

  3. AstroGremlin
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous evaluation of the elements that engender trust on a website. I love that the list of telltale signs includes “You just know.” So true. 🙂 But identifying what specific elements come across as “shady” . . . well, obviously the point of the article.

    • Posted February 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      It would be fanscinating to really dig down deep with research that actually pinned down the “you just now” effect for everything including website trust.

      I do know that one of the most hated and distrusted things on the web is people not using their real name or an appropriate pseudonym that sounds “real.” It comes up in every test I’ve done as not endearing or enabling trust and those who choose to use such names have to work extra hard to build trust, something they wouldn’t have to do if they used a pseudonym. Their point would still be made without the name agenda. I find that even more fascinating. What is acceptable on forums and Usenet groups and the gaming world isn’t in the “real” world of web publishing.

  4. Posted February 23, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    I have a small personal blog and enjoy following many others. In the past month or so one of the travel blogs I had been following for about 5 months suddenly started looking like she was writing to get paid versus her previous fun “this is how my vacation here went” writing. I suspected something was up, but held on to a hope that this wasn’t so. Last week she changed the name of the blog, has sponsors, has ads and contests to win trips… So disappointing! I am no longer “following” her blog. It seems so commercialized and is quite focused on “things” instead of the travel aspect of the blog.
    In regard to errors… I agree 100% and found one a few minutes ago on my post from this afternoon. I will have to change it. It is easy to make errors when typing on an iPad and I am usually so careful about proofreading before hitting the send button!

    • Posted February 23, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Excellent point. When people change topics or course, or begin to get paid, we always get suspicious of their motives. While it is awesome to get paid to blog, full disclosure is necessary. If she had brought you all along for the journey, explaining how the sponsors and process happened, then you would have probably gone along with it. Instead, she made the assumption that you would either not care or support her because you cared so much. Clearly, she has misread her audience. Those with those attitudes will continue on, but good on you for paying attention and not letting yourself be swayed.

  5. Posted February 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Interesting ….

    I guess the only thing that gives me trust of a website is its logic.


    • Posted February 23, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      LOL! Well, maybe. Logic is also a perception. Personally, I’d say I’d trust my instincts so I’m curious how do you define “logic” in this case?

  6. Posted February 24, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    It really is about the content. We get so obsessed with design and how things look (which are certainly important, because they lead us to the content), but my ultimate trust earner or breaker is the words on the site. Are lots of them ads? Can I quickly find out what I want to know?

    Maybe I’m biased because I’m a copywriter, but words really do make or break a website for me.

  7. Jen
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Ads don’t turn me off, in fact I don’t even see them anymore. Typos, articles that are obviously spun, no focus, are the things that make me turn away. On the other hand if a friend recommends a website to me and it has those things I will ignore the desire to leave until I have read at least a couple of posts. Word of mouth still works for me.

    • Posted February 25, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      @Jen, excellent point. Few of us see them any more which is why advertisers and designers are working even harder at getting your attention with moving, flashing, blinking, and horrid colors. These are all things that violate web standards for accessibility as well as federal laws in many countries. Does it stop them? No, but the rest of us can fight back by not relenting to the pressure to do this ourselves and not supporting those who do. Only our money and voices will change things.

      I’ve never understood why people persist using design elements that continuously top the most hated design elements on the web. Go figure.

  8. Posted February 29, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    I like the “you just know” item in your list. I never really thought about that before, but I definitely rely on that instinctive response when browsing the web – though obviously not exclusively.

    Excessive advertising, including copy that is written like an advertisement, are definitely on my list of trust destroyers too. I don’t care is a site utilizes advertising (though I typically ignore it), but I do hate when advertising is in the way of content.

    I guess overall presentation matters to me as well for trust. This would include a real person writing, useful about pages for both the site and writer, decent grammar, etc.

    Interesting post overall though, as this is not something I have thought lots about before. Obviously we all make these decisions many times each day while browsing though.

  9. John Pratt
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    People are now becoming more and more wiser when it comes to figuring out if the site is something that can be trusted or not. Yes, the “I just know” thing always turn out to be right. If one sees that something just doesn’t add up, they usually leave the site in a heartbeat. Glad you made that point. 🙂

  10. Jeff
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lorelle,

    I think you are good in stating what seems to be a subconscious automatic response. When I visit a site and skim through the articles, I know right away if the owner knows what he is saying, likes what he is saying or if he is only after for an adsense click or an affiliate money.

    It is more an intuition. You just know it without knowing how or why.
    And your site is a real deal! Thanks for the article.

  11. remo
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    Question; What makes you trust this site?
    Answer; Too many ads or advertising in general…

    I don’t understand your question. Shouldn’t you ask “What makes you distrust this site?”

  12. Posted May 1, 2012 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, since this post was published the first three points…

    * Too many ads or advertising in general.
    * Little or no original content.
    * Too much design and too little content.

    …have all been incorporated within Google’s ranking algorithm. I just posted about it.

    In a nutshell, for better user experience – and SEO – you need to make sure readers don’t have to play “hunt the content”. Few of us would do that intentionally but sometimes in an effort to squeeze an extra bit of ad money out we can overpower the design & content – and our visitors.

  13. Posted June 24, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    I can get a sense of trust for a website by looking to see if there is a community around the site. The quality of articles and the frequency of the articles published are important, but just as important is the quality of the comments. Quality comments help me feel a sense of community and help me to trust the website.

35 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  16. […] Lorelle on WordPress has written a very though blog on this issue and offers many suggestions from various sources. Suggestions are often directed to different types of sites such as a corporate business. It mentions that corporate businesses should make their site more personable by having the chief executive officer write a monthly blog. This would be the hardest to pull off in my opinion. Not many chief executive officers are willing to share much of themselves on the internet, much less have them write a monthly blog. Alternative ask them give you a personal letter/message to post on the site. Afterall, not all CEOs are like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. […]

  17. […] trust in their product if they would focus on how their site design is being conveyed. The site Lorelle has an interesting article out on the web that talks about how we trust websites and how design can […]

  18. […] Lorelle VanFossen has written a great article to help answer that. When she was searching for reasons of why we trust sites, one of the responses […]

  19. […] Design and Credibility are crucial to a website. It takes no longer than a second for an user to decide if he or she will continue to stay and view the website or change to another website. There are many factors contributing to this. Web design encompasses many different skills and disciplines in the production and maintenance of websites. The different areas of web design include; web graphic design, interface design, authoring; including standardized code and proprietary software, user experience design and search engine optimization. Often many individuals will work in teams covering different aspects of the design process, although some designers will cover them all. The term web design is normally used to describe the design process relating to the front-end (client side) design of a website including writing mark up, but this is a grey area as this is also covered by web development. Credibility refers to the objective and subjective components of the believability of a source or message.As defined by So what does make you trust a website? Here are three things that helps make you trust a website according to Lorelle on WordPress: […]

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